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Kenny Wheeler: quiet man on the cutting edge

Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler

The writes,

"Sad songs have always made Kenny Wheeler happy. His pieces often sound like backdrops to movies in which women throwing Mona Lisa smiles over their shoulders vanish into mists, or estranged lovers exchange lingering glances. He isn't given to analysis of why this bittersweet music so fascinates audiences and his fellow jazz musicians – even in a business of few words, Wheeler is legendarily shy – but around his 80th birthday last January he unwound enough to tell me: "What I like doing best is writing sad tunes, and then letting wonderful musicians destroy them. I don't want the players to try to interpret what they think I'm feeling."

He doesn't even call himself a composer, but someone who "takes pretty songs and joins them up". The soft-spoken Toronto-born musician has been sketching his enigmatic scenes for over half a century now, in which period – to his surprise – they've been massaged or creatively subverted by A-list jazz artists from the late Sir John Dankworth to sax stars Jan Garbarek and Evan Parker. Despite his 80 years, he retains his uniquely pure and melodically startling flugelhorn sound, and still composes profusely.

Wheeler has lived in the same Leytonstone home with his wife, Doreen, for over 40 years. His regular two-hour warmup routine in the mornings borders on a meditation, "just breathing out through the trumpet, not using my tongue. That's how I try to keep in shape, I don't play pieces." He does play, however, when he's trying to get himself into the mental zone to compose – but on the piano."

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